The Howard League for Penal Reform

Education in children’s prisons

New rules that children in prison must be given 30 hours a week education come into force on 17 August. In theory this is a good thing, however, the devil is in how prisons are going to be able to cope.

The specified timetables show two slots per day each of three hours. This implies that young boys will be in the class room for three hours, twice a day. Anyone who has taught teenage boys will know that they have plenty of physical energy and need to run about a lot. Whilst physical education is included in the programme, it will be delivered in a great chunk and this still means that most days will be hours in the classroom.

A recent analysis of the young adult population in prisons revealed that 80% had been suspended from school, 72% had played truant and 58% had been permanently excluded. They did not thrive in a classroom-based environment and found the rigour of paying attention for long periods to classroom-based activities impossible.

I have seen some excellent and imaginative teaching in prisons. But to force 30 hours a week of mostly classroom based teaching on children, and indeed on teachers, is not going to work.

It could work if prisons are flexible, but only if short periods of class teaching are interspersed with outdoor physical education and creative activities. Imagine a literacy class of 45 minutes, followed by 45 minutes of football, 45 minutes of maths and 45 minute of painting. I would hope the boys would get a full curriculum that included history (my subject, so obviously the most important), geography, the sciences including practical lessons, languages and of course, PSHE that would include sex education.

Somehow I can’t see that happening. Both Feltham and Cookham Wood prisons are officially rated as performing poorly and the other prisons holding children only reached most of the targets.

Local authority-run secure units have delivered 30 hours of education to their children for years. It is generally very high quality and the children attain proper qualifications like GCSEs and A levels. But, they have good staff ratios, qualified teachers and decent facilities.

Prisons are going to struggle to deliver the sort of education that these children will enjoy. Education is not a punishment, it should be a pleasure.

July 31, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Prisons


We had a call from the partner of a prisoner who is being held in Littlehey, a C training prison.

She said that due to an unusually large number of prisoners being sent to hospital, there are not enough staff on the wings.

When a prisoner is held in a hospital it can mean that up to six staff are out of the prison doing bed-watch round the clock. Six prisoners in hospital multiplies that as the men may not even be in the same hospital never mind on the same ward. The impact on a prison with a total staff complement of 180 officers who work on shifts with the normal sick absences and holidays, losing as many as 36 staff all at once means the regime is decimated.

As a result the regime in the prison now involves men being locked up from 5.15pm until 1.15pm the next day. They’re then unlocked to collect lunch until 2pm. From 2pm and 4.45 they’re in workshops. They then have 45 minutes to make phonecalls, shower, pick up dinner, exercise, go to the library, or anything else they might do until lock up at 5.30pm. At the weekend there is almost total lock down all day and all night.

As prisoners get older and more have to spend time in hospital, this kind of situation will become more common. Older prisoners tend to be serving longer sentences and are held in training prisons. These prisons are intended to offer work and activities in preparation for release. If older prisoners are sent to hospital it restricts the regime for the hundreds of younger inmates. They will not be getting the training or education they crave and need. Their opportunity to earn a little pocket money so they can call  home or buy extra food is taken away. Resentment would be normal.

Last week the independent monitoring board report on Littlehey prison was published. It said that

•   A significant number of the men at Littlehey are elderly and staffing levels do not recognise the specific needs of an aging population in terms of health and social care, as well as the increased requirement to escort prisoners to outside hospital appointments.

•  The number of hospital appointments and bedwatches has put more pressure on the staffing levels which are already limited.

•   There is also now a need for escorts for external hospital appointments

The Board also drew attention to the fact that only 50 out of a 1206 men will receive a specific intervention to challenge their prime offence – a sexual offence. It is hardly surprising that prisoners are not getting the courses they need to address their crime if the staff are being deployed elsewhere. These courses are required to show the parole board that offending behaviour has been addressed. If people cannot take part in them they are much less likely to be released, so clogging up the system even more.

We expect an inspection report on Littlehey to be published shortly


July 27, 2015 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons

Virtuous lives in prison

The more I think about Michael Gove’s idea that prisoners should lead a virtuous life and could earn early release the more I think if they are brought together, it might be very interesting. I am not used to dealing with intellectual secretaries of state, they usually use mundane and pedestrian language that reflects a limited vision and political expediency.

If the Ministry of Justice has to consider how to cut 25 to 40 per cent of its budget it needs a new discourse with the public. The only way to achieve savings on this scale is to reduce the number of people sent to prison, speed the release process and keep the daily population down. It may only be a thinking Conservative who can succeed.

This secretary of state knows that education is not just about reading and writing. The Blair government poured millions into basic skills teaching in prisons and it made no apparent difference, attached as it was to the usual targets that are easy for institutions to ‘game’. The explosion in the population meant that prisons were merely delivering programmes and not educating people.

The recent deterioration in conditions has had a devastating effect. Prison life today is intellectually, morally and physically moribund. It is a living death. There is no cultural experience, no music, no theatre, no forum for exchange of ideas, nothing that we would recognise as forming the basis of a good life. People are trapped in sordid cells with a television and slop around fetid landings in saggy jogging clothes to an inane activity if they are lucky to get out at all. No wonder self-injury is at epidemic levels and violence is commonplace. Young men thrash out in frustration and fear when they are caged in squalor.

The vision of prisoners being given the opportunity to live a virtuous life inside and on release is something quite different. A virtuous life that finds the treasure in the soul of the man or woman in prison would be a new kind of incarceration entirely. I don’t know what the secretary of state has in mind but it must offer opportunities for people to thrive.

There are people in prison who need help with basic skills but that does not mean they are not able and willing to participate in higher learning and cultural activities. There is plenty of evidence that people engaged in creative activities like painting and theatre are less likely to self-harm or exhibit violence. This is beneficial for safety in prisons and bodes well for reduced reoffending.

Allowing prisoners to earn early release must not be just about attending offending behaviour courses, I want to see something much more exciting from the secretary of state. He has the chance to transform prisons.

July 24, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Prisons, Rehabilitation

The government’s response to the Justice Select Committee’s report on women

The government has responded to the Justice Select Committee’s report on women and it is a very mixed bag.

To start with the positives:

Caroline Dinenage clearly stated that she wants to see fewer women in prison, particularly those who are primary carers for young children. This is very welcome news.

She also pledged support for the Greater Manchester Whole System Approach, which includes early intervention and referral to a women’s community service at the point of arrest. The Howard League and the APPG for Women in the Penal System championed this model in a recent publication on preventing unnecessary criminalisation of women. The Minister doesn’t seem to have a plan for how to spread this approach yet. It will be much trickier to establish in smaller cities and rural areas.

However, compared to Michael Gove’s recent response to the Justice Select Committee’s Prisons: Planning and Policies report this response is very brief and focuses on setting out and defending the policies adopted over the last few years rather than engaging with the committee’s recommendations and setting out the changes the new administration wants to make.

I wonder if it is because Michael Gove is concentrating on the big problems and leaving women to his junior ministers, who will inevitably be more influenced by officials who themselves grew up in the old order.

The committee’s major concerns about the impact of Transforming Rehabilitation on women are brushed off with vague ‘robust contract management’ statements. This of course is nonsense, as the ministry of justice and the local networks have no track record of robust contract management. The opposite is the case. The lack of robust contract management led to the fiasco with tagging and two years later the Serious Fraud Office is still trying to unpick the mess.

There is little recognition of the funding difficulties facing women’s centres, the response was just the usual line that Community Rehabilitation Companies can choose to fund them if they want to. This is a disaster waiting to happen. I was talking to the manager of one of the best women’s centres only two days ago who was pleased as punch that her funding was secured until March 2016! That short-term funding is no way to run a service or treat employees and service users. It also means that managers spent an inordinate amount of time scrabbling around for funding and putting in bureaucratic bids and monitoring forms instead of helping women in need.

Baroness Corston’s key recommendation of a women’s estate comprising only a few small, local units is completely rejected. The response that the National Offender Management Service has set up several PIPEs (for people in prison with serious mental health needs) is bizarre, as they are completely different issues. I’m worried that there is a lack of understanding of the arguments for small units for the few women who need to be in custody.

Furthermore, fewer women having access to Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL), despite a virtually non-existent failure rate and a very positive impact on resettlement and reducing reoffending, doesn’t seem to cause great concern.

Overall this is a disappointing response that doesn’t appear to have grasped the opportunity to do things differently.

July 23, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Women in custody, Women in the penal system

Brinsford prison

The inspection report on Brinsford prison published today shows that it is possible to turn a dreadful prison round. The question is, how was it done?

In 2013 it was holding 569 young adults in dire conditions. The prison was filthy, violent and festering with crime. The Chief Inspector of Prisons said that it was the worst he had seen.

A troubleshooting governor was parachuted into Brinsford. By February 2015 when the latest inspection was carried out much had improved. The prison was safer, cleaner and more purposeful. The problems have not all been solved as the inspectorate points out. Attendance at workshops and education was still too low with a third of the young men locked in their cells most of the time.

So what changed?

Firstly the number of young prisoners was radically reduced. The latest inspection shows 393 being held although the prison is certified to have place for 545. The governor steadfastly refused to accept overcrowding, even turning away vanloads of extra young prisoners who consequently had to be held in other already crowded prisons.

Secondly the number of staff was maintained and I understand some of the old guard were ‘moved on’ and new staff selected for their positive attitude were recruited.

Thirdly, a lot of money was spend on refurbishment. A lot. New windows, repainting and repairing everything in sight. The obsessive security was lifted so that corridors were spacious and light. The grounds were cleared up and planting improved.

Charismatic and energetic leadership made the difference because it was evident that the well-being of the institution was paramount. Budgets and some rules were ignored in order to make the prison a safe and functioning environment for young prisoners and for staff.

But, that kind of leadership cannot be guaranteed to every prison and the difference was partly based on significant additional financial investment and a big cut in the number of prisoners.

The lesson for other failing prisons is that it is simply not possible to improve without more money, fewer prisoners and investment in staff. It doesn’t come cheap. To roll this out across the prison estate would be impossible as they face cuts of up to a billion pounds. The only solution is to cut prison numbers and then we can replicate the success at Brinsford.

July 21, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prison officers, Prisons

Michael Gove and prisons

I listened with care to Michael Gove’s speech on prisons this morning. I welcome his vision and his language. I like the idea of prisoners leading a ‘virtuous’ life. As a putative classicist the pursuit of virtue is of more than philosophical interest.

But – and there is a very big but – when I asked him  how he was going to achieve his objective of improving conditions, particularly education, when there are too many prisoners and not enough staff, he replied that he is still considering sentencing and will speak about that at a later date. Understandable, perhaps, but it is the crucial question which cannot be ducked for long.

Today the Secretary of State came up with three suggestions, two of which are problematic.

I welcome the move to give prison governors more autonomy. When I was in a prison recently I asked the governor about his budget and he replied that he didn’t have one. Every decision is being made centrally by NOMS. He had no power to buy extra food, employ additional teachers or change any of the way money is spent. This was in part a Chris Grayling power grab and in part the legacy of years of contracting out by NOMS and reversing it would empower governors to invest staff time in things that matter and make a difference.

The second suggestion was that as much of the Victorian prison estate is crumbling we could sell off the valuable central London sites and use the capital to build shiny new prisons. I do not think this will work, not least because we have been here before. The Conservatives looked at this in some detail before the 2010 election and it was fraught with problems. Some of the prisons are not owned by the Ministry of Justice but by the Queen or rich landlords. So the Ministry may not get the profit from any sale. The cart and horse argument is pretty tricky too, as you have to build the new prison to house people before you flog off the old one. New prisons get filled up immediately so you end up with the full new one and the full old one – one reason why the prison estate has steadily expanded over the years.

The third suggestion was to let people out early if they have learnt to read and write and proved their willingness to engage with learning. This is already the case with people on longer sentences as part of the parole process involves showing that people have engaged with education or employment. Nonetheless, providing more opportunities for prisoners to earn release could ease pressure on the prison population but not if it merely substitutes current arrangements – it must go further if it is to work. At the same time, the Secretary of State should understand that prisons are so overcrowded and understaffed that not enough prisoners are getting unlocked in the first place to go to classes. Prisoners mostly want to learn and work, it is the prisons that are the problem.

These are helpful public debates. The tone is positive and the ideas are interesting. The most important element of what Mr Gove said is that he recognises there is a problem. Now he needs to analyse the exact dimensions of the problem. Finally, solving the problem will require radical and courageous leadership.

July 17, 2015 · Frances Crook · 8 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Prisons, Rehabilitation

Suicide in prison

Thirteen men took their own lives in prisons during May. I think this may be an all-time high. We have already had notice of seven more self-inflicted deaths in June.

The Howard League gets notification every time anyone dies in a prison. This includes people who take their own lives, people who have died from apparent natural causes and others who die in circumstances that require further investigation. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman published a report this week on the deaths of people linked to drug-taking. In addition, five people have been killed in prisons so far this year.

Three of the 13 who took their own lives in May were aged 18 to 24, the age group covered by Lord Harris and his team in his report published last week. The Harris inquiry was the most comprehensive review of why people take their own lives in prisons and what we have to do to prevent this.

These men are dying in overcrowded, understaffed local prisons like Wandsworth, Leeds, Exeter, Liverpool, Durham, Norwich. Staff cuts and an increased number of prisoners mean that staff don’t have time to get to know people and prisoners don’t have time to get to know staff. There are only a handful of support staff on duty at night doing patrols. Men are locked in their cells for most of the time. This is a sad existence.

Something must be done to reduce the prison population, and quick. I met the new Secretary of State last week and had a very constructive and wide-ranging conversation. I suggested two pressure points that could be addressed that would ease the prison crisis.

Firstly, far too many men, women and children are being sent to prison on remand – and 70 per cent of those remanded by magistrates’ courts are found not guilty or are given a community sentence.

Secondly, something must be done to improve the release process for long-term prisoners.

A suicide in prison is a lonely and desperate act. It should never happen.

July 8, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Inside prisons, Mental health, Prison officers, Prisons, Self-injuring, suicide

You can’t put a number on it

Today the Howard League, alongside the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A), published You can’t put a number on it, a report exploring maturity for young adults in the criminal justice system.

We value the experiences and thoughts of the young people we work with and the report draws on participation work from the Howard League, involving over 80 18-24 year-olds with experience of the criminal justice system from across England and Wales. I have included some of the words we heard from the young people we spoke to and included them in italics throughout this blog.

An important lesson from the report is that everyone matures at a different rate and that maturity has little to do with age or legal status. Maturity is complicated. As two young men doing group-work in a prison told us:

‘I think adulthood begins at different ages for different people’

‘There should be an awareness that just because people are 18+ adults, what does that number mean?’

The criminal justice system should be better at giving young people responsibility so they can grow and develop, including help with interpersonal and practical life skills. Young people want solutions based around them as individuals and which adapt with them as they grow. A former legal client of the Howard League told us:

‘’Maturity should be split up in sections…you could be mature with family and friends but immature when it comes to things like jobs and housing. You could be mature in here (prison) but immature on the out’

A particular concern raised by many young people was that of the so-called ‘paper self’, the identity constructed for them by the criminal justice system at a time when they are still finding out who they are. Bureaucratic assessments contained within pre-sentence reports, sentencing remarks, police records or assessments in prison can become the basis for all professional interaction with young people. Another young man in custody told us:

‘My documents always came before me, so an opinion was already formed, based on the papers’

One young man who was confronted with persistent inaccuracies about his family history said:

‘Do you know how hard it is to hear people saying stuff like that and to have to sit there and take it when professionals say bad things or that ain’t true’

Professional support drops off for young people when they turn 18, but their responsibilities increase as they become adults and this can be a shock. The young people told us that this support shouldn’t fall away when it does and that positive professionals who persevere make a huge difference to their lives.

Young people want more education and practical skill building in prison. They want more practical support and less signposting as engaging with services is hard if one has never done it before. They want help to develop interpersonal skills so they can better engage with people and rebuild relationships that may have previously been damaged.

As one young man who had left custody only to return told us:

‘The thing I found hard [when I came out last time] was things like job centre and housing because it was all new. I knew in my mind how important it was but it was hard to do because nobody had shown me’

Many of these findings are echoed in a report also published this week which looked at the deaths of young adults aged 18-24 in custody. The Harris Review is the most comprehensive analysis of why so many young people are dying in our prisons ever undertaken. It carries over 100 recommendations for the government to consider, and it is welcome that the Ministry of Justice has signalled it will take the review seriously and respond later in the year.

The Harris review echoes our findings around maturity and supports the T2A contention that maturity should be a primary consideration in making decisions relating to all aspects of how young adults are treated by the criminal justice system. As well as asking profound questions as to why young adults are sent to prison in the first place, the Review makes various recommendations to ensure consistent and appropriate professional support when young people are imprisoned.

For all that the Howard League is a charity engaged in campaigning and public education, much of what we do happens behind the scenes. In the writing of You can’t put a number on it, the Howard League convened a professional roundtable to engage practitioners with the findings of our report. This roundtable was attended by key officials from both the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service.

At the meeting we were impressed by work being done by NOMS to develop a tool to measure and assess the maturity of young adults and other prisoners, and this work is also welcomed by Lord Harris in his review. The Howard League has subsequently met with the NOMS team developing the tool, in order to discuss how this assessment could move away from the ‘paper self’ and how it can respond to other concerns raised by young people around maturity. We are confident that this tool will play a part in how the government responds to the gauntlet laid down by Harris.

That, in a nutshell, is the benefit of participation to the Howard League. We provide legal representation and advice to young people, and then offer those young people and others an opportunity to get their voices heard by policymakers and politicians. Thanks to the support of the T2A Alliance, we were able to relate what the young people told us with direct developments within government that should change policy and practice for the better.

July 2, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Children and young people

Secure training centres

Ahead of an announcement on the future of secure training centres next week, it is worth looking back and assessing whether they have been good for children, or not.

The idea was cooked up by Kenneth Clarke during his brief sojourn as home secretary in 1992. At the time there was a media furore about ‘feral youth’ and particularly boys who were committing several offences rather than anything serious. He proposed the establishment of a different sort of custody that would put education at its heart for these boys, and the very few girls. The idea meandered its way through as a policy but without any consideration to child protection or children’s rights which had just been enshrined in the 1989 Children Act. The Labour Party promised to oppose their establishment. The Howard League took judicial review proceedings challenging the failure to include child protection or any reference to the Children Act. The court stayed the signing of contracts and it was not until 1996 that the first was finally signed for Medway with the company now known as G4S. Nothing was built. When Labour won the 1997 election instead of abandoning the idea, Jack Straw took it up with alacrity and three more secure training centres were opened, all run by private companies.

The original idea was for a maximum of 40 children but of course they were expanded, sometimes to nearly 90.

Immediately there were problems. A riot took place in Medway. Children were removed from Oakhill and the then Chief Inspector of Prisons called for it to be closed after ‘staggering’ levels of force against children were uncovered. Two children died. A 15-year-old boy choked to death on his own vomit whilst he was being restrained by staff. A 14-year-old boy hanged himself after being restrained. Restraints and self-injury have always been rife and reoffending has been pretty much guaranteed.

The cost was exorbitant. Each child cost around £180,000 per year, depending on how it was calculated.

Hassockfield, built on the site of the Medomsley detention centre now being investigated for systematic child sex abuse of hundreds of boys, was run by Serco and had a particularly poor record of illegally using force against children. It was closed at the end of last year. The centre had a ‘no hugs’ policy, so staff could not comfort children, but bizarrely called its painful restraint system a ‘structured hug’.

Recently the inspection of Rainsbrook revealed that children were subjected to degrading treatment and racist comments and had been cared for by staff who were under the influence of illegal drugs. The inspection report revealed that staff had smuggled in ‘inappropriate’ DVDs. Children were restrained 166 times in six months – 72 of these restraint incidents were in response to children harming themselves. Despite this, the Youth Justice Board announced the next day that G4S had been granted an extension for its contract at Medway.

The contracts for both Medway and Rainsbrook are now coming to an end and a process to issue new contracts has been rumbling along behind the scenes at the Ministry of Justice. Winners of the new contracts are due to be announced on Tuesday 30 June. There are two possibilities: G4S may win both contracts, despite their appalling histories. Or G4S may lose both contracts, making way for new providers to profit from the incarceration of children. But the profits will be lower – the new contracts are for significantly less money than G4S and Serco have been paid since STCs were introduced. This does not bode well.

What should happen? They should be closed. This is an opportunity to save a lot of public money and make sure that children are not subjected to abuse.



June 25, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Prisons, Privatisation

Michael Gove’s plans for justice

The new secretary of state for justice and lord chancellor, Michael Gove, has spent a few weeks listening and learning and emerged into the media spotlight with a speech focussing on the courts. He is right to say that it is sometimes impossible to know in which century the courts operate. The shambling inefficiency needs radical reform, not just because it is a mess but because it disrespects justice and the rule of law.

Victims, defendants, lawyers, witnesses, they are all treated as if they are just a nuisance. The buildings are filthy and dilapidated and the people running the system are curt, if not downright rude. Change has to come from good leadership and attitudes have to change at the top. Mr Gove must not just change the technology, he has to bring about a revolution in the purpose and ethos in the courts.

He could look at what happens in New York. The Red Hook community court experiment was replicated in Liverpool but was abandoned because it was claimed to be too expensive. Part of the problem was that the Liverpool court was hobbled by an antiquated and bureaucratic sentencing structure that dished out excessively long community punishments that people cannot achieve. If we ask too much of people, they will fail. The first lesson from New York is that we should exact a penance that is proportionate, immediate and brisk.

The second lesson from Red Hook is that people should be treated with respect and an expectation of redemption. The court process should be the first step to change. At the moment the court is the start of a lifelong condemnation that ends in repeated reoffending.

Mr Gove will have a fight on his hands. There are vested interests in the court system that will resist change. I wish him luck.

June 23, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Government policy